In Praise of Procrastination

In a recent article for The American Scholar magazine, the very fine novelist David Guterson recalled his first college creative writing class.  His teacher, Jack Brenner, gave the class a piece of advice that has stuck with Guterson during his distinguished career: JUST PLUNGE IN.  Don’t worry about whether you’re prepared for whatever writing project is on your front burner.  Don’t be afraid of writing badly, of failure.  Just plunge in.

I agree, and share that advice often with people who tell me they have a great idea for a book, a story, a movie, whatever.  Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and do the work.  Talkers talk, writers write.  My own college writing teacher had a similar piece of advice.  His term was, “Just blast it.”  Put something down, no matter how much you cringe when you read what you’ve written, and then go back and make it better.

However, there is also something to be said for procrastination, which flies in the face of what we’ve been told from infancy about getting along in life.  “Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today,” our parents admonished.  In school, in work, in life, we face deadlines.  Sporting events have rigid time constraints.  The shot clock is ticking.  Golfers are penalized for slow play.  Pit stops are timed down to the last chaotic millisecond.  We are all in a race, and those who slow down are doomed.

But wait.  How about the story of the tortoise and the hare?  Who won that one?  The slow and steady guy, who just kept plodding along at his own sweet pace, smelling the roses and enjoying the scenery.  I like to think he paused periodically to just contemplate the journey.  He not only finished first, he no doubt lived a lot longer than the hare and enjoyed it more.

For me, writing is like that.  I work at the business, putting in my daily time, aiming for a reasonable output of words.  I admire those folks who can spend eight hours a day at their writing, but I’m not one of them.  When I’ve met my daily goal, I need to get up and go do something else, something unconnected with the work.  But if I’ve got a good yarn going, the characters and their story are always with me.  When I’m away from the actual writing, the story is marinating.  And often, at odd moments, something from the story speaks to me in a serendipitous way, something I can use the next time I sit down at the computer.  I call it creative procrastination.

Maybe the best piece of advice came from Fred Rodgers.  When our daughter Lee was small, she watched Mister Rodgers’ TV show every day.  One day when we were getting ready to go somewhere, we told Lee to hurry up.  She put her hands on her hips and said, “Mister Rodgers told me to take my time.”  I try to remember that.

We probably all need to rush less and marinate more.  No telling what we might discover along the way that we would have otherwise missed.  Like the tortoise.

It's Festival Time!

It’s Spring, and that means a raft of literary festivals, especially in the South.  At last count, I noted eleven in this part of the country.  Every state worth its name seems to have one – some as short as one day, some lasting several – in which writers and readers are brought together in joyous celebrations of the written word.

I’ll be involved in two during the month of April.

On Saturday, April 19, it’s the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery.  It’s a day-long affair featuring author presentations, workshops, book signings, food, music, and schmoozing.  More than 50 authors, all with Alabama connections, will be there to share our work and enjoy the interaction with readers.  alabamabookfestival.org  

Then Thursday – Saturday, April 24-26, it’s the Alabama Writers Symposium in Monroeville, home of Harper Lee, author of one of the two truly iconic books in American fiction, To Kill A Mockingbird (the other being Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn).  The Symposium honors an outstanding author and literary scholar each year, and this year the awards go to two longtime friends and truly gifted writers – novelist and screenwriter Mark Childress and historian Wayne Flynt.  www.facebook.com/pages/Alabama-Writers-Symposium/

Writing, as I’ve said many times before, is lonely, painful work – an individual sport.  We scribblers spend hours, days, years behind closed doors battling demons, writers’ blocks, and infected paper cuts.  Then at some point we stagger out into the light of day clutching dog-eared stacks of paper and proclaim, “I just wrote THE END.”  At this point, as I tell aspiring writers, art meets commerce.  Writer meets reader.  To have a reader express an interest in what you’ve just toiled over so mightily is the payoff.  When organizers of a literary festival bring tons of readers together to express interest, that’s as good as it gets.

When writers gather, we talk shop: who’s written what, which agents are hot, who’s got the latest mega book deal; and we commiserate over the profound changes, for good and evil, that are taking place in the book business.  We swap tales over manuscripts rejected, e-books launched, the pleasures and perils of marketing.  The art/commerce thing.

But more importantly, we congratulate each other over having written, and we rejoice in the opportunity to look our readers in the eye and thank them for their encouragement and support.  It’s a love fest.

And for readers, it’s a chance to meet, see, hear, touch the poor souls who labored so long and hard to bring forth works of poetry, fiction, memoir, history – all of the written things that entertain, inform, educate, and even disturb.

If you love good writing and reading, seek out a literary festival near you and go.  You’ll find yourself among folks of like mind, you’ll have fun, and you’ll make a bunch of deserving writers mighty happy.

Imagination In A Jar

My friend Andrew posted this photo of his son Sean on Facebook the other day, and it got me to thinking about Raggedy Ann and Andy.  Or more to the point, kids and imagination.

When our daughters were small, they loved stuffed things – dolls, animals, the like.  Our older one had an entire menagerie that we referred to collectively as “the friends,” and when we took a trip, the friends had to go along.  They were simply part of the family, and for our daughter, they were a little community of bonny companions with whom she played and talked.  She endowed each of them with a personality that came right out of her imagination.

Our younger daughter likewise had a bevy of stuffed friends, and for her, they often made up a classroom.  She liked nothing better than to arrange the friends in front of a chalkboard and teach school to them.  Her lesson plans were quite involved, and ranged across the firmament of subjects the daughter was herself learning in school.

For both kids, the menagerie included Raggedy Ann and Andy.  I figured out that the best thing about Ann and Andy was, they didn’t do anything.  And therefore they could do anything.  Ann and Andy didn’t cry, burp, close their eyes, or say “Mama.”  Our girls had dolls that did those sorts of things, but they weren’t much interested in them.  Ann and Andy, though, could be, do, or say anything that the girls’ imaginations could conjure up.  The possibilities were limitless.  I think the same thing applies to Sean and his jar.  He can imagine the jar being full of anything or nothing, or being just a jar, or something entirely different.

Lots of toys these days do lots of things.  You wind them up or put in batteries and turn them on or switch on the remote, and then you sit and watch them do whatever they do.  And that’s it.  They are what they are.  But if you’re a kid (or an adult, for that matter) with imagination, they can become much more.  And maybe, the less they do, the more they can become.

Kids are born with a vast capacity for imagination, plopped down in a world that’s strange and fascinating and laden with possibilities.  There are all sorts of ways to cultivate imagination, and the best one is reading.  It starts with the kid being held and cuddled by someone older, feeling safe and warm and hearing the comforting rise and fall of a familiar voice.  The child associates that good feeling with whatever reading material is being held in the older person’s hands, full of pictures and little black things that squiggle across the page.  At some point, as language develops, the child begins to realize that the pictures and squiggles are telling a story, setting off more pictures in the child’s mind.  And once that happens, the kid is hooked.  Imagination, I tell young people, is what you see when your eyes are closed.  You might be looking at what’s on the page, but what you’re really seeing is that movie reel going on inside.

When a child’s imagination is nurtured and set free, good things happen.  Kids with imagination do well in school and grow up to be people who solve problems because they can envision how things can be better.  For a kid with imagination, a toy is just a receptacle for possibility, and the sophistication of the toy doesn’t matter so much.  Raggedy Ann and Andy will do just fine.  Or just a jar.

Well, It's About Time

Clock.jpg

My dear wife is complaining about Daylight Saving Time.  She heard some fellow on NPR who has written a book that says DST is mostly hogwash, that we really don’t save any energy, and that all this fussing about with our clocks disrupts business affairs and sleep patterns.  My wife’s main complaint, and it’s a legitimate one, is that kids have to wait for school buses in the dark, and that can be dangerous.  For my part, I like having that extra hour of daylight in the late afternoon when I can enjoy outdoor sports, yard work, and other useless activities.

The idea of making the most of the day has been around for a long time.  My favorite American, Benjamin Franklin, famously said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  While living in Paris in 1784, he anonymously penned a satire in which he suggested taxing shutters, rationing candles, and waking the public by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise.  Get those lazy Parisians out of bed and on to their labors.  None of Ben’s suggestions were followed, and thus  Parisians did not become healthier, wealthier, or wiser.

The first person to propose Daylight Saving Time was the New Zealand entomologist G.V. Hudson in 1895.  He wanted more daylight hours to collect bugs.  His proposal fell on deaf ears.  Then the British businessman William Willett brought up the idea again in 1907.  He was an avid golfer, and wanted more daylight hours to pursue that nonsense.  His idea also came to naught.  It took the Germans and their allies in 1916 to actually do the clock shift thing as a means of saving coal during wartime.  Well, we know who lost that war.

“Fast time,” as it’s sometimes called, has always been surrounded by controversy.  I was a young reporter in Montgomery in the early 60’s when that august body, the Alabama Legislature, debated whether to put the state on DST.  The Alabama Farm Bureau was staunchly opposed to the idea.  I interviewed a spokesman for the Farm Bureau who explained with a straight face, “We believe it will confuse the farm animals.”  I was too stunned to ask the obvious follow-up question, having to do with clocks in barns, etc.  The Legislature, despite the Farm Bureau’s opposition, approved the idea.

My grandmother, Nell Cooper, had a simple solution to the confusion surrounding the clock shifting.  In the winter months, she arose from her bed at 7:00am.  During the months of DST, she slept until 8:00.  She had it in her mind that she gained (or lost, I never quite figured which) an hour every day.  Some of the members of the family tried to explain it to her, to no avail.  Nell Cooper always had a healthy attitude toward time, which is probably why she lived to be 94 and said, on her deathbed, “I’ve give out, but I haven’t give up.”

My wife’s protestations to the contrary, most of us are now on Daylight Saving Time.  The neighborhood kids are waiting for the school bus with flashlights in hand and I’m puttering about my yard at 7:00 in the evening.  But I’m also considering laying abed until 8:00 each morning.  Maybe Nell Cooper had it right.

 

Delbert Earle and the Sound of Spring

Oh ye who are weary of Winter, take heart.  It’s Spring already!

Or, at least it is in Glendale, Arizona where the Los Angeles  Dodgers have started Spring Training.  Pitchers and catchers reported February 8, and the full roster encamped last week.  The Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks (the only other team now in Spring Training) will open the major league season March 22 in Australia.  My friend Delbert Earle believes that one or both will try to sign a kangaroo as a base runner.

Dodgers.jpg

Spring is that time when the earth awakens and flowers, never more so than in the souls of baseball fans.  If you are a fan worthy of the name, Spring is the time when you believe that your favorite team’s best pitcher will win 25 games in the coming season, the cleanup batter will hit .400, and some guy who has been laboring in obscurity in the minors will be called up to the big team and hit 50 home runs.

Baseball, of course, is a sport that never quite goes away.  When they’re not actually playing baseball, they give out awards and trade players and sign insanely mega-buck contracts.  But it’s not really baseball season until the weather turns warm, as it has in Glendale.  When the crack of the bat is heard in Glendale, Winter is truly over.

I say crack of the bat in deference to my friend Delbert Earle, who is a Dodger fan worthy of the name.  Delbert Earle is of the old school that believes that real baseball is only played with bats that crack.  He has no truck with bats that clank.  As in aluminum.

Delbert Earle deeply regrets that in our schools and colleges, they play baseball with aluminum bats.  His boy Elrod plays high school baseball after a fashion, and like any good father, he goes to the games.  But he winces every time he hears a clank.  He is about aluminum bats as he is about cars with diesel engines.  Delbert Earle has a hard time listening to an engine that sounds like it has termites.  I have tried to tell him that modern diesel engines are quiet, but he says I’m just not listening hard enough for the termites.

Delbert Earle hopes they don’t have many diesel cars in Glendale, Arizona, where he plans to retire one of these days.  He wants a small bungalow in Glendale, preferably within walking distance of the Dodgers’ Spring Training site.  He hopes Elrod will come to visit every Spring to hear what real baseball sounds like.

Delbert Earle vows to be a purist in his old age.  He doesn’t even plan to drink soda pop from aluminum cans.  Beer?  Well, maybe.

Bad Weather? Blame an Author

There are some folks who seem to think my writing contributes to natural calamities.  There may be some truth to that.  The evidence keeps piling up.

DSC00001.JPG

As I look out my office window, there is a foot of snow in my back yard and on the golf course just beyond the hedge.  Kids on sleds are having great fun barreling down the twelfth fairway while some of their parents are slipping and sliding along the roadways in our area.  It’s the biggest snowfall in North Carolina in a decade.  For those who consider anything more than an inch of snow a calamity, I’m afraid they may start blaming Cooper Lanier.

Cooper is the heroine of my latest novel, The Governor’s Lady, newly-elected governor of her southern state.  On the second day she’s in office, the state is hit by a blizzard which paralyzes everything, and the snow serves as a backdrop against which a test of wills plays out between Cooper and her husband Pickett (former governor and now presidential candidate).  Will Cooper be a figurehead, a stand-in for Pickett, or will she be a dynamic decision-maker in her own right?  How she deals with the blizzard sets the stage for what comes after.

When ill-prepared Atlanta got flummoxed by snow a couple of weeks ago, several readers suggested that the honchos there should have read The Governor’s Lady to see how to handle things.  So far, no one has suggested that my inclusion of the blizzard in the story was a portent of Atlanta’s calamity.  But with a foot of snow in my back yard today, and folks slipping and sliding, I’m a tad concerned that rumblings will begin and Cooper and I will get the evil eye.

Nonsense, you say.  But it has happened before.  I grew up in a river town in Alabama, and during my youth the local lore was rife with stories of the Great Flood of 1929, when the river got out of its banks and inundated the town.  My grandmother and her four kids had to escape their home in a rowboat.  While I was growing up, the river behaved itself.  Then in 1991, I published Old Dogs and Children, set in a southern town much like my own.  One of the major events is a flood.  My heroine, Bright Birdsong, escapes with her small child in a rowboat.

The novel had barely made it into print when – you guessed it – my hometown flooded.  The river, calm all those years, went nuts.  Local folks are invariably nice people, and no one said to my face that the book was to blame for the calamity, but for years after, I got jaundiced looks whenever I visited, even in church on Sunday.  I think most folks have finally forgotten and forgiven.

I would like to share the blame for any natural disaster with my fellow storytellers.  We may all be complicit in this sort of thing, whether we write of calamities or not.  The computer age has a lot to do with it.  I sit at my keyboard typing away and constantly mashing the backspace key or even highlighting and deleting entire sentences – nay, paragraphs – of slovenly prose.  By definition, it is bad stuff, not worthy of human consumption.  Where does all that bad stuff go when I zap it from my computer?  I wonder if it may be floating around out there in the ether, roiling the atmosphere and contributing to floods, hurricanes, forest fires, sun spots, and other assorted natural maladies.  Who knows, it may even be contributing to the dysfunction in Congress.

But if any of this is the case, my fellow storytellers and I will just have to live with it.  We scribble on, employing imagined disasters as grist for our tales.  All we ask is, the next time a blizzard hits your locality, don’t run over your local author with your sled.

Ralph Keyes on "The Courage To Write"

My guest blogger today is Ralph Keyes, superbly-talented and prolific author, renaissance man, and good friend.  His fine book, The Courage to Write, has been an inspiration to me and countless other writers.  Ralph’s books are available on Amazon.com.

Keyes.jpg

Before publishing The Courage to Write I sensed that a fear of putting words on paper was common among aspiring writers.  I had no idea how common that fear is.  Nor did I realize that it wasn’t just neophytes who are anxious about writing, but anyone at all.  Only after Courage was published and I began to hear from other writers did it become clear how prevalent writing anxiety is.  “Each fear described is of acute familiarity to me,” wrote one.  “I’m not alone in my fears and silly writing habits!” added another. 

 On the verge of publishing his first book, a Canadian author wrote me, “For a long while I was (and am) dealing with the kind of issues you wrote of.  The writers I knew rarely discussed anxiety, or failure, or even fear. I thought we were supposed to strut around with this hard shell attitude, this blazing self-confidence, and I always wondered why I alone suffered these crippling anxieties and doubts.”

 After getting enough responses like this I finally concluded that the definition of a frightened writer is “whoever dares to put words on paper (or in pixels).”

 Why should writing be so scary?  I think it’s due primarily to a fear of being exposed. “Will readers see right through me?” is a question that plagues writers as they write.  “Naked” is a word they commonly use to describe how they feel when their work is about to be published.  One bestselling novelist compared that feeling to dancing nude on a table.  (She’d done both and found publishing novels far more frightening.)

 But there’s an upside to the nerves all writers experience.  Just as actors, athletes, and public speakers find that being on edge gives them an edge, anxiety can lend a powerful edginess to writing.  It also helps writers reach out to readers. 

 Everyone has an inner self that they’d rather others not know about.  We go to great lengths to hide that self, the one that is ambivalent about our mother, who betrayed a friend in high school, and who sometimes picks its nose no one’s looking.  Keeping this self hidden isn’t an option for writers, at least ones who are any good.  Because the secret self is usually the most interesting self.  His lair is where the richest nuggets of golden material can be found. 

 One reason memoirs are so popular these days – especially ones like The Liar’s Club and Angela’s Ashes – is that their authors risked sharing their inner lives with readers.  Since readers too have hidden lives, they identify with that type of writing, and are grateful for the authors who dared to be so candid.  To the degree that an author can risk being candid, to that degree his or her writing will leap off the page, grab readers by the lapel, and say “This is something you’ve got to hear!”  Doing that is scary.  Terrifying even.  Yet it’s the best way to produce anything better than pablum.  That’s why I believe the most important line in The Courage to Write is “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing (anything of consequence that is).”

Ralph Keyes's new e-book, Second Thoughts: The Power of Positive Regret, is available as a Kindle single on Amazon. 

Just Open A Vein And Bleed

I often quote my graduate school fiction teacher, the late novelist Barry Hannah, who had a keen sense of the process by which stories get told.  One of the things Barry said that has stuck with me through my writing career: “What we do when we write fiction is fracture reality and put it back together as truth.”

Barry said that if you walk around all day with a recorder and capture everything that was said in your presence, what you get is mostly mundane and un-memorable.  But somewhere on that recording there is a little nugget of truth, something said that raises it above the trivial and goes to the heart of what it meant to be human that day.  A nugget of truth, that’s the thing.  For a writer, it’s the raw material of storytelling.

There is much about all our lives that is mundane and un-memorable.  But in every single life there are nuggets of truth that make up our essentials – the twists and turns of our existence, our joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, our most basic beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world.  We are fascinating, intriguing, complex creatures, capable of all sorts of acts and ideas, much of which borders on the impossible.  As a writer, if I can’t find something sublime in all that stew of human existence to tell a story about – well, I should check to see if I still have a pulse.

For all of us – writers or not – our reality is made up of millions of pieces of humanity, and the older we are, the more millions there are.  We are the sum of everything we’ve done, every person we’ve met, every place we’ve been, everything we’ve read and heard, every thought we’ve had.  We are, in short, the sum of ourselves.  As writers, we use every shred of it we can get our hands on.  We create out of ourselves, and in that sense, everything we write is autobiographical. 

It can be a painful process.  When we write, whether we like it or not, we reveal ourselves.  There are parts of us in every character we imagine, warts and all.  I think that can be especially daunting for young writers just starting out.  When I visit with a group of high schoolers, listen to them talk about their work, read what they’ve shared on the page, I remember what it was like for me at that period when I was half-formed, vulnerable, wondering if what was going through my hormone-drenched body and mind was impossibly weird.  To reveal oneself through writing at any stage is an act of courage.  For the young, it’s especially so.

But it’s worth doing.  For writing to be worthwhile, it has to be honest.  And to be honest, it has to be worth the pain.  The great sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed."  Red Smith’s writing was honest and elegant, and only he truly knew how much it was wrenched from his gut.  Because it was, I’m sure he found the result profoundly satisfying.  For a writer, that’s just about the best payoff imaginable.

Happy Birthday, Ben Franklin

Back when I was in the news business, somebody asked me which figure from history I would most like to have interviewed.  I answered without hesitation, “Benjamin Franklin.”  He’s simply one of the most intriguing human beings to have ever walked the face of the earth.

Wikipedia describes Franklin as a polymath – “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.”  Franklin was “a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.”  He focused the hot glare of his wide-ranging brilliance on practical, as well as theoretical matters.  His inventions include the lightning rod (he almost became one himself) and bifocals.  He was opinionated and outspoken and could on occasion be insufferable.  But by golly, he was smart and clever and when he saw something that needed to be done, he got about doing it.

What I most want to celebrate about Mr. Franklin today, his 308th birthday, is his influence on education.  His most famous and influential utterance on the subject was a pamphlet published in 1749, in which he said, “It has long been regretted as a Misfortune to the Youth of this Province that we have no ACADEMY, in which they might receive the Accomplishments of a regular Education.”

The American colonies of 1749, including Franklin’s Pennsylvania, were still in their raw, formative years.  But Franklin was a man of vision, who could see the upstart land coming of age.  Many of the older, leading citizens had been educated in Europe and brought that knowledge and perception to the new land.  But what about the younger folk, born in America and – ready or not – faced with leading the next, vital phase of the colonies’ growth?  American youth, he said, were not lacking in capabilities.  What they needed was “Cultivation.”  Ignorance, he said, would lead to “Mischievous consequences.”

So Franklin proposed that people of means and public stature form a corporation, obtain a charter from the government, and establish an academy of learning.  He insisted that the leaders of the corporation visit the academy often, take a personal interest in the lives and education of the students, and help and encourage them in their careers.  Their education, he said, should be both broad and practical: mathematics, science, language, writing, history, geography, ancient customs, morality, commerce, oratory.  It was a recipe for producing a renaissance person who could draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.  In other words, people in the mold of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was successful in his campaign.  Soon after the publication of the pamphlet, the leading lights of the community established the Academy of Philadelphia.  In 1791, it became known as the University of Pennsylvania.  Throughout its long and distinguished history, it has been a superb institution of higher learning.  It all started with Ben Franklin, who saw a present need and did something about it.  But he also saw into the future.  He was a leading voice for independence from Britain, and he could envision a dynamic nation based on the principles of freedom, justice and opportunity – but only if it embraced knowledge, reason and wisdom.

The question here on Ben’s 308th birthday: do we still believe what he believed about the power of education, and do we and our leaders support that ideal?  The answer says a lot about where we’re headed.

Barry Hannah and the Big Tricks

My fiction teacher in graduate school was the late novelist and short story writer Barry Hannah, who told his students in general right off the bat, “I can’t teach you to write, but I can encourage your writing.”

To me in particular he said, “When you learn the big tricks, you’ll be okay.”

“What are the big tricks?” I asked.

“You’ll figure them out as you go,” he said with a smile.

I think, after a good number of years of making up stuff and putting it on paper, I’ve figured out at least a couple of the big tricks:

  1. Be honest with your characters;

  2. Trust your readers.

Since all stories are about people, the way to make stories authentic is to tell about authentic people, and that means presenting them warts and all.  We human beings are a fascinating stew of good and evil, joy and sorrow, light and dark.  Even the best of us have some secrets of the soul we’d rather nobody else know about.  And even the nastiest, smelliest of us have some tiny redeeming quality.  Since the great privilege of the fiction writer is to plumb the depths of characters’ souls, what we find down there – the dark as well as the light – is what makes them real.  Sometimes my characters infuriate me; sometimes they embarrass me.  But always, they fascinate me with their spirit, their energy, their insistence on being human in every way.  My job is to be honest with them.  So if you read one of my stories and find characters who seem authentic, I’ve succeeded.

Then that other big trick, trusting the reader – first, to be able to deal with authentic characters honestly presented.  My characters may occasionally infuriate and embarrass you, as they do me, but I believe you can handle that.  I trust that you will find something in them, in their honest presentation, that rings true and possibly resonates in your own life, or the lives of people you know.

Then too, I have to trust that you will bring your own imagination to the work.  I don’t have to tell you everything, and in fact, the more I try to tell you, the more I get in the way of the story and the characters.  I need to tell you just enough to get your imagination engaged, and you will fill in the blanks and make the story much more than what I could offer.  It will become your story, and the characters will become your people.

My good friend Ralph Keyes, a wonderful writer and a wise and perceptive man, has written a book called The Courage To Write.  Every person who writes, or wants to write, should read it.  Ralph talks, in part, about this business of being honest.  I don’t know if Barry Hannah ever read Ralph’s book, but part of what he encouraged in my writing was this business of honesty.  It was the best thing he did for me.

By the way, Barry encouraged some pretty darn good writers in his many years of teaching, including Mark Childress and Donna Tartt.  He was generous and nurturing, and he knew what he was talking about.  In a way, Barry’s at our elbows every time we sit down to write.

In my next post, some thoughts about the writer’s imperative to be honest with himself.  Warts and all.  Stay tuned.

The World of "What If?"

Okay, I confess it: I lie for a living.

I make stuff up and write it down on paper and talk people into publishing and performing it.  When I write the stuff, it’s very real to me.  I see people moving about, hear what they say, even know what’s inside their minds and hearts and souls.  But it all takes place in a made-up world.  It’s all fiction.

But then, it’s not.  That fictional world I’ve imagined has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is me.  It begins in my version of reality – the sum of all the things I know.  It’s where imagination begins. 

Here’s an example:

When I finished college in 1965 I went to work as a TV news reporter in Montgomery, Alabama.  My beat was the state capitol, where George Wallace was the governor.  Wallace had run for President in 1964 and made some waves, winning a couple of Democratic primaries and causing a lot of heartburn for the party regulars.  He planned to run again in 1968, this time as a third-party candidate.  He had a strong power base in Alabama – a source of money, political talent, influence – but that would evaporate when his term as governor ended in 1966.  Wallace asked the legislature to change the state constitution to allow him to serve a second term, but they refused.  So George convinced his wife, Lurleen, to run in his stead.

It was understood from the beginning that Lurleen would simply be a stand-in for George, that he and his cronies would continue to hold the reins of power, make the decisions, chart the course.  Alabama’s voters had no problem with that, and given George’s enormous popularity, they had no problem with giving Lurleen an overwhelming victory.  She served gracefully but mostly benignly until she died of cancer less than two years into her term.

I tucked away the George and Lurleen Wallace story in my memory bank and went on to other pursuits – among them, fiction writing.  And then many years later, their story came bubbling back up.  A woman governor of a southern state whose husband is running for President.

But then came the point where the story became a work of fiction.  That’s when I asked, “What if?”

What if the story is set in the modern day: a presidential aspirant helps his wife get elected governor and intends (a la George Wallace) for her to be a benign stand-in.  But instead, she’s smart, feisty, independent, determined to chart her own course?  What if she has a political bloodline of her own, and with it, solid instincts.  And what if she finds allies who can help her navigate the treacherous shoals of male-dominated, good-old-boy politics?

So with that “What if?” a new story is born, eventually becoming a novel, The Governor’s Lady.

There’s a line in a Kris Kristofferson song: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”  And that’s what a story is, a contradiction.  It’s real stuff, made-up.  It has to be grounded enough in reality to be authentic and believable to a reader, a solid point from which the reader is willing to take a leap of faith into the imagined world.  That imagined world is what transforms the reality into something new, and that world begins when the fiction writer asks, “What if?”

So yeah, I lie for a living.  But every good lie has to have a grain of truth in it.

Think about all that, and so will I, and I’ll have some more to say about it in my next post.

Wishing You A "Silent Night"

I was in the car yesterday, listening to holiday music on the radio, when they played a stunningly beautiful rendition of “Silent Night” featuring the brilliant violinist Joshua Bell and a choir of young voices.  It was so sweet, so pretty, I felt a great welling up of emotion.  But then, I always do that when I hear any version of “Silent Night.”  I suppose it’s partly because of the lovely, simple words and melody.  I don’t get the same feeling about “Good King Wenceslas,” my other favorite carol, which has a sort of rousing good cheer to it.  “Silent Night” is sung slowly, with feeling, best done in a dim sanctuary with a lighted candle in hand.  There is something about the song that evokes all of the bittersweetness of the holiday season – joy and sorrow, things present and things past, people cherished and people mourned.

Carolers.jpg

I remember the first time I got choked up over “Silent Night.”  I was a teenager, a member of the Methodist Youth Fellowship in my southern hometown.  On the Sunday night before Christmas, it was tradition for the church youth to forego our usual meeting and instead go caroling about the community.  Some of us could sing and some couldn’t, but we all made a joyful noise of one kind or another, and when we finished our rounds and went back to the church for brownies and hot chocolate, we were richly warmed with the spirit of the season.  I remember that we were unusually subdued on those occasions, our teenage souls touched by something deeper than the mere singing of songs.

We caroled mostly for the benefit of the town’s sick and shut-in.  And in a town of four thousand, we included just about anybody who had the least kind of malady, from terminal illness to ingrown toenail, so there would be enough recipients to make it a worthwhile evening.

This one Christmas I remember so vividly, my grandmother, my beloved Mama Cooper, was on our caroling list.  She had been down with a cold and had not been able to attend church services that weekend.  So we showed up on her front porch on Sunday night.  She bundled herself in scarf and overcoat and stood in her open doorway while we sang a carol.  And then she requested “Silent Night.”

As we began to sing, I looked into Mama Cooper’s aging face and confronted, for the very first time, her mortality.  She was a powerfully sweet influence on my young life: mentor, cheerleader, protector, confidant, friend – all those things only a grandmother can be.  I suppose I had assumed she would always be there.  But in that instant I realized that she wouldn’t, and I was devastated.  So I stood there on the back row with tears rolling down my cheeks, my voice caught in my throat, and – purely and simply – grieved.

Mama Cooper lived for another thirty years or so, and I had the continued blessing of her companionship right up to the end.  We had lots of good times together.  But I think I always appreciated her more after that December night on her front porch when I was a mere, half-formed lad.  At her funeral, when her other grandsons and I bore her to her gravesite, I silently sang “Silent Night” and I cried – not so much because she was gone, but because of what she had left in my heart.

I think it’s perfectly okay for a guy to cry, to admit that you have the capacity to be deeply affected by something or someone, to be vulnerable to the whole range of human emotion.  And the holiday season is a perfectly good time to be emotionally vulnerable, to shed a tear or two over the people we miss, along with tears of joy for those we cherish and cling to, rejoicing in the gift of the days to come when we can say the things we need to say, do the things we need to do, for those who are still with us.

So in this holiday season, I wish for you a “Silent Night” moment.  It’s a good thing to take into the new year.

Christmas Is For Storytellers

My favorite time of the holiday season is Christmas afternoon.

It stems from my boyhood in a small southern town  in a family of storytellers to whom I owe much of who I am as a writer today.

We were a large, rowdy group – my mother, her three brothers, in-laws, cousins, and my grandmother,  Nell Cooper.  She was a feisty, independent soul – widowed at a fairly young age with four children at home.  She raised and educated them and in her later years enjoyed having them close at hand.  Especially on Christmas afternoon, when we all gathered at Mama Cooper’s house.

It was the family tradition for the twelve cousins (I was the oldest) to draw names a couple of weeks before and exchange small gifts.  Mama Cooper would hand out presents to each of us, we would all have punch and cookies, and then the kids were sent outdoors to play with the stuff we had gotten from Santa that morning.  The adults would gather around Mama Cooper’s dining room table and tell stories.

Mama Cooper was the tee-totaling daughter of a Methodist minister, and she did not allow fermented spirits in her house.  Except on Christmas afternoon.  The boys would concoct eggnog, liberally flavored with bourbon, and the more eggnog that was consumed, the better the storytelling got.  My dad and three uncles had been in World War Two – two pilots, a sailor, an infantryman – and much of the storytelling involved that time in their lives.  Never about combat, but about far-flung places, girlfriends who became wives, the fast-moving and often chaotic world into which they had all been catapulted  from that small southern town.  And about life back home while the boys were off at war – the ration books, the gold stars in windows, the heady uncertainty, the powerful sense of relief when it was all over and they could put small-town lives back together.

Nell Cooper and her family, c. 1927

Nell Cooper and her family, c. 1927

Curious kid that I was, I would leave the little young’uns playing in the yard, sneak back into the house, and hide in the living room, listening to the tales being told on the other side of the wall.  I don’t remember many of the details of the grownups’ stories, but I do remember vividly the realization that I was hearing things about my parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother that I could have scarcely imagined.  I understood that there was a rich texture to their lives, an undercurrent, that shaped the people they were now, and that the texture, the undercurrent, was the most fascinating part about them.  It made them intriguing, even exotic, and it had a profound impact on my evolving view of the world and human experience.

As a writer, I am all about characters and relationships.  There are things about people we see and hear, and there are things unseen and unheard.  There is a tension between the faces we show to the world and the things that are in our hearts and souls.  That tension has a great deal to do with who we are and how we relate to the people around us.  Our relationships are profoundly affected by our hidden places, our secrets, the soul stuff.  And how we each reconcile the tension between the obvious and the secret has a great deal to do with how genuine we are as people.

Okay, that’s all a mouthful, but it’s as close as I can get to my approach as a storyteller.  My job is to present a character who bubbles up from my imagination, present that character as honestly as I can, warts and all, and plumb the depths of the hidden stuff.  I hope, when the work is done, you’ll find something that resonates with your life, your world, your relationships.  If I do, I’ve been successful.

It all goes back to Christmas afternoon at Mama Cooper’s house.  Ever since, those few hours have been special to me.  This Christmas afternoon, I’ll take some time to be quiet and think about those good people there in Mama Cooper’s dining room and thank them for the gift they gave me without ever knowing they did.

Merry Christmas.

Santa Claus Is Coming, Regardless

It starts every year about this time, without fail: grownups begin to threaten young people over Santa Claus.  The air is full of dire predictions about what might happen Christmas Eve if children aren’t something akin to saintly.  It is the bludgeon used to produce clean plates at mealtime, tidy rooms, impeccable manners, and timely homework.

Of course, adults have been putting the evil eye on children’s behavior since time immemorial.  My grandmother, for example, had a special word of terror for kids who trampled her flowers, tracked mud on her rug, or swung too high in her porch swing.  “Nasty stinkin’ young’uns,” she bark, “I’m gonna pinch your heads off!”  Mama Cooper was a sweet and kind person who never would have pinched the head off a radish, much less a child, but she could strike fear into her grandchildren.  We were careful around her flowers, her rug, and her porch swing.

Santa.jpg

So the grownup weapon of fear is a time-honored tradition.  But the direst predictions of ruin and misfortune, it seems, are always saved for the Christmas season.  “If you don’t clean up your plate, Santa Claus won’t come.”  “Act ugly one more time, buster, and you’ll find a bag of switches under the tree.”  Well, baloney.

I came to my senses about the Santa Claus business when I met Jake Tibbetts, a crotchety old newspaper editor who appeared in my imagination one day and then took over the pages of my first novel, Home Fires Burning.  Jake had a built-in bull-hockey detector and could spot nonsense a mile away.  Jake’s grandson Lonnie lived with Jake and his wife Pastine, and when Christmas rolled around, Mama Pastine put the pox on Lonnie about Santa’s upcoming visit.

At the breakfast table one morning, Lonnie let a mild oath slip from his ten-year-old lips.  Mama Pastine pounced.  “Santa Claus has no truck with blasphemers,” she said.

“Hogwash,” Daddy Jake snorted.  “Santa Claus makes no moral judgments.  His sole responsibility is to make young folks happy.  Even bad ones.  Even TERRIBLE ones.”

“Then why,” Lonnie asked, “does he brings switches to some kids?”

Jake replied, “This business about switches is pure folklore.  Did you ever know anybody who really got switches for Christmas?  Even one?”

Lonnie couldn’t think of a single one.

“Right,” said Daddy Jake.  “I have been on this earth for sixty-four years, and I have encountered some of the meanest, vilest, smelliest, most undeserving creatures the Good Lord ever allowed to creep and crawl.  And not one of them ever got switches for Christmas.  Lots of ‘em were told they’d get switches.  Lots of ‘em laid in their beds trembling through Christmas Eve, just knowing they’d find a stocking full of hickory branches come morning.  But you know what they found?  Goodies.  Even the worst of ‘em got some kind of goodies.  And for one small instant, every child who lives and breathes is happy and good, even if he is as mean as a snake every other instant.  That’s what Santa Claus is for, anyhow.”

Well, Daddy Jake said it better than I ever could.  I believe with all my heart that he is right, just as I have always believed fervently in Santa Claus and still do.  Santa Claus is for real.  Just look in a kid’s eyes and you’ll see him.

Grownups are wrong when they threaten kids with the loss of Santa.  We adult types need to grant the kids their unfettered moment of magic.  If they act up, threaten to pinch their heads off.  But leave Santa out of it.

The Games Southerners Play

It is said that in the South, college sport is a form of religious expression – football in the Deep South, basketball in the mid-Atlantic.  We observe occasions when our favorite teams collide with gut-wrenching, sweat-soaked fervor that one also associates with snake-handling, foot-washing and speaking in tongues.  Especially, speaking in tongues, as in: Gawdamighty, lookitat suckahrun.  If he’s our sucka, we experience salvation; if he’s the other team’s sucka, we feel like Jonah, swallowed by the whale.

My good wife and I were sitting in the Louisiana Superdome some years ago, watching Alabama play Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.  Paulette observed, “A thousand years from now, when archaeologists dig up this place, they’ll say that this is where we worshiped.”  She’s a wise and perceptive woman.  Alabama happened to win that day.  We were in a state of grace that bordered on religious transcendence.

These days, we still experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat when a team we care about takes the field or court, though we are a little mellower about it than we used to be.  Age may have something to do with it.  But many of our friends and relatives still worship at the shrine with enthusiasm undiminished.

Bama logo.jpg

My late uncle Ed was a perfect example of unbridled sports worship.  His favorite team was the Alabama Crimson Tide – football, of course.  He thought basketball was something to keep the student body occupied between the bowl game and spring practice.  If you are a Tide fanatic, your everlasting arch enemy is anyone who is devoted to the Auburn Tigers, the cross-state rival.  A Tide victory over Auburn on the last Saturday in November ensures Alabama faithful a warm and self-righteous winter.  A loss – as happened this past Saturday -- brings thoughts of self-immolation, a spike in Prozac prescriptions.

Uncle Ed never attended Alabama, but he was the school’s most devout follower, and the bane of every Auburn fan in the small town where he lived.  Auburn’s mascot is a magnificent eagle, and if Alabama won the game, Uncle Ed would celebrate by hanging dead chickens over the front doors of the Auburn faithful, especially those who couldn’t take a joke.

My own situation is somewhat ambivalent.  My mother went to Alabama, my father played football at Auburn.  In Alabama, they call that a “mixed marriage,” though one friend says it’s more like coming from a broken home.  On the last Saturday in November, my parents didn’t speak.  Sometimes the silence could last well into December, depending on which team won and by how much, and whether the winner’s fan got a bad touch of the smart-mouth.

Auburn logo.jpg

In my youth, I was an ardent Auburn fan.  The Tigers had great teams during my teen years, while Alabama fell on hard times.  I dreamed of attending Auburn, but to my dismay found that the school at that time offered no degree in communications.  “I don’t intend to educate a bunch of disc jockeys,” an Auburn president told me some years later when I suggested the school start such a program.  So I swallowed my disappointment and went to Alabama, about the time the late coach Paul “Bear” Bryant began guiding the Tide to national championships.

Over time, I’ve still had a soft spot in my heart for Auburn, and I have steadfastly been a fan of both schools’ athletic programs – except, of course, on the last Saturday in November.  My Uncle Ed never used the word “traitor,” but his doubts about me fell somewhere in the neighborhood.  Auburn, I should add, now has a very fine program in communications, and I don’t believe all of its graduates are disc jockeys.

Far wiser people than I have observed that in the South, college sport – especially football – has served as a form of redemption.  During the early part of the last century, when Southern states labored under the burden of poverty and wide-spread illiteracy, football exploits became a source of great pride, far beyond the games themselves.  If a Southern team whipped a Northern team, it translated into a general feeling of fiercely-defiant we’re-okayness.  The Civil War was refought on countless Saturdays, and often, the result was different from the original.

Today, you’re likely to find the roster of any college athletic team to be a marvelous melting pot of young Americans from every corner of this country, and even from overseas.  These young folks aren’t fighting the Civil War any more.  It’s more like the foxholes of World War Two, where boys from Tennessee shared miseries with young fellows from New Jersey, and both learned that people are pretty much the same, regardless of where they’re from.

Still, we have our loyalties, our agonies and ecstasies, when athletes of our favorite teams take to the field or court.  Our devotion has its excesses, of course, but the business is mostly harmless.  For a few hours on Saturday afternoon, it distracts us from the woes of mundane life and keeps us out of trouble.  Sort of like going to church or synagogue.

Life In A Boiler Factory

If you lived through, or have read about, the turbulent ‘60’s in America, you may recall the name of Theodore Hesburgh.

 

student protest.jpg

It was a noisy time in America, especially on college campuses, largely due to the raging controversy over the war in Vietnam.  Student sit-ins became a favorite campus pastime – flocks of students descending on the office of the college president and literally sitting in, crowding the floors and hallways, generally clogging up the works and bringing things to a standstill.  One of the principal demands of the student activists was the abolishment of ROTC programs, which were sending a steady stream of graduates into the military services.  It was an agonizing time in American higher education.  Agonizing, and noisy.

 

Rev. Hesburgh was the president of Notre Dame.  He served for 35 years, the longest tenure in Notre Dame’s history.  He guided the university through a time of impressive growth.  He was world-renowned as an educator.  But one of his best contributions to the period may well have been as a voice of calm reason.  I remember reading a speech by Rev. Hesburgh, given at the height of the student protest movement, in which he said, in effect, that the search for enlightenment can’t take place in a boiler factory.  In other words, we can hear each other better – and thus reason together better – if we lower the volume.

 

I thought about Rev. Hesburgh when I read that the Federal Communications Commission will consider allowing in-flight cell phone usage on passenger aircraft.  The FCC’s chairman thinks it would be okay if we took out our cell phones and started making calls once the plane reaches 10,000 feet.  Coffee, tea, or bedlam?

 

The protests have begun.  The FCC’s office has been flooded with calls and emails, the gist of which are that cell phone usage aloft would lead to unbearable noise pollution, an extra irritant to go along with narrow seats, tighter rows, baggage fees, security obstacle courses, and no free sodas.  Allowing cell phone conversations would no doubt be a benefit to business travelers who could put the time to good use.  But have you sat in an airport waiting room and listened to all of the inane chatter going on from people with cell phones glued to their ears?  They’re the vast majority.  Well, maybe not.  The vast majority are all of the rest of the folks glaring at them and wishing they’d just shut up.

 

We live in an incredibly noisy world as it is.  We’re bombarded by sound – from our televisions, boom boxes, ipods, traffic, construction, lawnmowers, and people who just can’t stop talking.  We take so little time to insulate ourselves from the noise, to be quiet and just listen.  I think of imagination as what you see when your eyes are closed.  And maybe it’s also what you hear when you’re quiet.  We’d probably be a lot better off if we took just 15 minutes a day to shut it all off, be calm, think, wait.

 

As a writer, I absolutely depend on quiet.  Some writers tell me they have music playing while they write.  I suppose for them, it’s okay.  But I have to keep the noise – what a character in The Governor’s Lady calls “the howl of the world” – at bay.  I’ve imagined another world, populated it with folks who intrigue me, and given them some dilemmas to confront.  When I visit their world, I want to hear from them, and I can’t do that if the howl of my other world intrudes.

 

I don’t know how the FCC proposal will play out, but I suspect that the howl of protests will take care of the matter.  If we need another voice of reason in the matter, I’d suggest Rev. Hesburgh.  And maybe we should consider sit-ins at the FCC office.

Always, Always, Follow The Money

One of the most intriguing characters I’ve had the privilege to imagine in my career as a novelist is a woman named Mickey Spainhour: a crusty, profane, hard-nosed political operative (if you’re casting the movie, think Shirley Maclaine).  Mickey has nurtured the careers of politicians for years and in The Governor’s Lady, is – near the end of her life – providing advice and wisdom to her daughter Cooper, who is the newly-minted governor of her southern state.

Final cover.jpg

Cooper, despite having been the daughter and later wife of a governor, is somewhat naïve about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the political process.  Now, having taken office, she’s struggling to establish herself in the treacherous world of good-old-boy male-dominated politics.  She and Mickey have been estranged for years, but now, she needs help.  She needs Mickey, and Mickey needs a last political hoorah.  Across the chasm that divides them, mother and daughter have an opportunity to re-connect.  Mickey’s experience and savvy can become Cooper’s best resource.

My friend D.G. Martin, the host of “North Carolina Bookwatch” on the state’s public television network, reviewed The Governor’s Lady and, with his keen eye for nuggets of political wisdom, zeroed in on one particular piece of advice from Mickey.  D.G.’s review is entitled, “Always, Always, Follow The Money.”

Mickey’s advice comes as Cooper is considering whether to approve a land transaction – a piece of state-owned land, swapped for another privately-owned tract.  Cooper says it doesn’t appear any money is involved.  Here’s Mickey’s take on it: “

“Don’t be sure.  Money, real money, is quiet.  So quiet you have to listen hard to hear it.  The noise in politics, it’s mostly about what people call ‘issues.’  Folks at opposite ends of the spectrum yelling at each other: the gun nuts and Bible-thumpers over here, the bleeding hearts and tree-huggers over there.  Smoke and fire, thunder and lightning.  But back in the shadows, being quiet, are the people with the big money, people who stand to make a lot more money, depending on who holds office.  And they don’t really care which bunch it is, gun nuts or tree-huggers.  They can do business with either, or anything in between, or both at the same time.  Don’t get me wrong, money people have ideas and opinions, but they rarely let them get in the way of their money.  So always, always, follow the money.”

The debate about big money in American public life goes on – the buying of influence, the stacking of decks, the inside trading.  Some believe that using money to sway political decision-making is simply the exercising of free speech; others think that big money drowns out the free speech of the little guy.  Make up your own mind.  But while you’re doing so, consider the wisdom of Mickey Spainhour.

In Search of the Elusive Goblin

Here it is almost Halloween, and my friend Delbert Earle is on his annual quest for the meaning of the word “goblin.”  It has become an important part of our Halloween vocabulary, something we toss around as if we really knew what it meant.  But Delbert Earle says if you try to pin down your average person on exactly what a goblin is, you’re likely to get a lot of hemming and hawing.

halloween2.jpg

The dictionary says a goblin is a “grotesque, elfin creature of folklore, thought to work mischief or evil.”  But Delbert Earle says that sounds a little too much like his mother-in-law.  He’s looking for something a bit more specific, and has been, in fact, since childhood.

Delbert Earle says when he was seven, he announced to his big sister Imogene that he wanted to be a wooly booger for Halloween.  Delbert Earle didn’t know any more about wooly boogers than he did about goblins, but he had it in his mind that anything with a name like “wooly booger” must be a fearsome creature.  And at seven, Delbert Earle wanted more than anything in the world to be fearsome.  So Imogene used her imagination.  She made him a coat out of a burlap sack and a hat out of a gourd.  She covered the whole business with Spanish moss, and then for good measure, spray painted it purple and green.  From all accounts, Delbert Earle looked like something that might emerge at midnight from your local waste treatment plant.

Thusly attired as a fearsome wooly booger, Delbert Earle went trick-or-treating.  He would go up to a house and knock on the door and a lady would come to the door and either scream or laugh.  Then when she recovered, she’d invariably say, “Why here’s a cute little goblin.”

Delbert Earle would get hopping mad.  “Naw lady,” he would snort fearsomely, “I ain’t no goblin, I’m a wooly booger.”  And he would stalk off.  After about an hour of this, Delbert Earle gave up and went home, his trick-or-treat sack empty and his fearsomeness in disarray.  That was the last year he went trick-or-treating on Halloween.  After that, he just stayed home and made faces at himself in the mirror.

Ever since, Delbert Earle has been trying to pin down this business of goblins.  He conducted an informal poll at Cheap Ernie’s Pool Hall and Microbrewery, but none of the guys had a clue.  Sure, they’ve heard the word, but ask for details and you get blank looks.  Now ghosts, they know.  Ghosts wear sheets, moan a lot, and disappear through the wall.  Some of the guys at Cheap Ernie’s would probably qualify as ghosts.  But there’s not a goblin expert in the bunch.

Last Halloween, Delbert Earle hit upon the idea of bringing Old Shep the Wonder Dog into the business.  He found the old burlap sack and gourd from his long-ago wooly booger costume.  His uncle Fitzwaller from Louisiana sent a supply of Spanish moss.  Delbert Earle decked out Old Shep in the get-up, applied purple and green spray paint, and put Old Shep on the front porch with a sign that read, “Goblin Dog.”  He figured he would at least get some opinions from the kids who came by trick-or-treating.  The problem was, Old Shep got it into his mind that he was fearsome.  He’s normally the most gentle and loveable of animals, but wearing that get-up, his personality changed.  He growled and snarled and scared away all the trick-or-treaters.  It took six weeks of watching soap operas for Old Shep to return to normal.

So, Halloween comes and goes and Delbert Earle still doesn’t know what a goblin is.  But he’s undaunted in his quest.  He’s written to Uncle Fitzwaller in Louisiana for more Spanish moss, and he’s mentioned to his mother-in-law that he has an idea about her Halloween costume.  Given the experience with Old Shep, I hate to think what could happen.

The Indies Are Back!

I’m winding up a two-month promotional tour for my new novel with some really good news: independent booksellers are back.

Everywhere I went on my 20-city tour, I found independent book stores that are thriving; owners who possess that essential combination of a love of books and good business sense; staff who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and helpful.  It’s a dramatic reversal of a 20-year trend, and for midlist writers like me who depend on word-of-mouth to sell books, it’s the best news in years.

Here’s an example of what’s happening in a good-sized city I’m very familiar with: fifteen years ago there were perhaps a dozen independent bookstores of various stripes scattered about town, some of them doing well, others gamely muddling along, showing slim profits but having lots of fun in a business they loved.  Today, there is one full-service, general-purpose independent bookstore in this city.

What happened was the double-barreled onslaught of chain bookstores and Amazon.  Within a ten-mile radius of this one surviving independent, there were suddenly four big chain stores – offering a huge selection and bestsellers at loss-leader prices, cheaper than the independents could buy them.  Customers the independents thought were fiercely loyal bolted for the chains and their discount prices.  The bottom fell out of the independents’ business and one by one they agonizingly gave up – all but this one store, which struggled mightily but held on by its fingernails.

bookstore2.jpg

Today, the landscape is profoundly different.  One of the chains went belly-up.  Two more closed their stores in the area of the city where the independent survived.  The last remaining chain is, in many parts of the country, closing stores and reducing inventories.  And many of the customers who shopped the chain stores are turning back to the independents, re-discovering what made them once-loyal customers.  That surviving independent in this city is seeing double-digit increases in sales from a year ago.  Life is good and getting better.

Independents still face an uphill battle.  There is stiff competition from the remaining chain operations.  Online booksellers offer books at discount prices.  And there is the steady and continuing movement to e-book formats, especially for fiction titles.  Kindle, Nook and Kobo have taken a big cut of that market.  But there are still huge numbers of people who insist on holding a real, physical book in their hands, and they are the core of the independents’ audience.

If you go into an independent bookstore and ask, “What do you have that’s good to read?” the staff will give you an informed suggestion, based on what they know about you as an individual reader.  If you’re looking for a book on a particular subject, the staff will help you find what fits your needs, and if it’s not on their shelves, they’ll have it for you in a couple of days.  If you want to spend an hour just browsing, soaking up the smell and feel of books while you have a cup of coffee and a muffin, you’ll find it a comfortable, inviting place.  If you want to meet one of your favorite authors peddling his or her new book, you’re likely to find them at an independent.  It’s old-fashioned customer service, married to modern technology and store owners with a keen sense of what makes a successful business. 

What’s happening these days with independent bookselling is a nationwide phenomenon, as noted by Fortune Magazine in a recent article: “The Indie Bookstore Resurgence.”  Author Verne Kopytoff noted that sales at independents grew 8% last year and are on track to do as well this year.  And membership in the American Booksellers Association is up 16% over the past five years.

Independents’ competition won’t go away, nor should it.  People who buy books and related items want choice, convenience, a good deal.  But for the moment, that immensely important part of the book culture that independent stores inhabit is the healthiest in years, and getting more so.  And the folks who are happiest about that (after the owners themselves) are scribblers like me.

The Moment I Became A Storyteller

I’m back home today – Elba, Alabama, the neatest little town on earth – with my new book.  About four thousand people live here, and that’s about what it was when I was growing up in the 50’s.  It was, and I’m sure still is, a village that nurtured its young.  And it was a great place to learn to be a storyteller: a small stage on which the same people interacted with each other day after day.  If you were smart enough to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, you could learn a lot about what makes human beings tick.  You could see people accommodating each other despite their differences.  And there were just enough oddballs of various stripes to make it intriguing.

As I drove into town, I remembered the exact moment when I became a storyteller.  It happened in the attic of my grandmother’s house, which is still standing.  The attic was a large room, added by my grandfather after Elba flooded in 1929 so his family would have a dry place to seek refuge if the river got out of its banks again.   When I was a kid, it was a sort of family dumping ground.

P51-d_mustang_472216_arp.jpg

My father and three uncles were in World War Two, and one of them, Uncle Bancroft, was a fighter pilot.  He flew P-51’s out of England, supporting the Allied march across Europe.  Part of the rich family lore was the story of how Uncle Bancroft was shot down and lived to tell about it.  He was escorting bombers when his plane was crippled by anti-aircraft fire.  Somehow, he managed to nurse the plane back to the English Channel, where he bailed out and was rescued by a British ship.  As a youngster, I thought that was about the coolest thing I had ever heard.

When Dad and the uncles came back from the war, they stored various items of their memorabilia in my grandmother’s attic, and in Uncle Bancroft’s footlocker, I found a parachute.  It had a silk canopy about four feet across, which I later learned was used for a flare.  But in my fevered 10-year-old imagination, I got the idea that this was the very parachute Uncle Bancroft had used when his plane got hit.  I could just see him there in the cockpit, getting the last bit of juice out of the smoking, dying engine, managing with great skill and courage to make it to the coast, throwing back the cockpit, climbing out on the wing, and leaping into space.  Dang!

Propelled by terminal foolishness, I tied that parachute to my skinny shoulders, climbed out on the attic roof, and got ready to emulate Uncle Bancroft’s death-defying leap.  It was at the moment my feet left the roof edge that it dawned on me I had done a very dumb thing, and that I should probably tell stories rather than act them out.  Luckily, I crash-landed in the nandina bush below with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises.  There was no British ship to pick me up.

In the considerable years since, I have done any number of foolish things.  But mostly, I have written about other people doing foolish things.  It’s a lot safer.